THE BLOG
01/22/2014 03:17 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2014

In Memory Of Tom Ferrick: America's First Atheist Chaplain Died

Stu Rosner.

My old boss and mentor, the world's first ever avowed atheist to become a university chaplain, died recently. Tom Ferrick, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University from 1974 until I took over for him in 2005, had been an orphan in Cambridge, MA during the great depression. He was raised by the Catholic Church and worked as a diocesan Catholic priest for 12 years, including as a Catholic chaplain at Dartmouth, before "deconverting". Years of searching brought him to Harvard, which was founded in 1636 as essentially a fundamentalist religious college, and which at that point had still only had chaplains from the 3 main flavors of American religion: Protestants, Catholics and Jews.

Tom was given the chance to be a pioneer because he asked the university for no money, and because it was assumed a the idea of a chaplain for atheists and agnostics would fail. Instead, Tom's dedication to the reason and truth, and his willingness to live an ascetic life-- a gay man, he never married, owned a home, or bought a car-- allowed him to become a key figure in the history of both Harvard and Humanism.

At Harvard, he eventually rose to be President of the United Ministry, the university's chaplain corps, and it was in large part his vision that made that body the 36-member group it is today, representing everyone from Atheists to Zoroastrians. I've been overwhelmed in recent days, hearing from Tom's religious colleagues about what he meant to them. Tom was deeply admired, not just by Humanists, but also by the Evangelicals, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Hindus, Korean Presbyterians, and others and others with whom fought to diversify the university's religious life. Many of these religious leaders credit Tom with recruiting them to Harvard, or at least they tell me he was the first of their peers to make them feel truly welcome on a campus that had for so long been a bit of an old-boys club. You might wonder: why a Humanist would go out of his way to build the most diverse group of religious chaplains in the world?

Part of it was baldly strategic. Tom believed that certain long-established religious communities should not be allowed to exist in a bubble of privilege, protected by ivy tower tradition from having to confront the true diversity of belief and doubt that exists in this world. He believed that more exposure to diversity would bring more questioning, more skepticism, and perhaps even more Humanism. But at the same time, part of Tom's approach was simple generosity of spirit. He knew plenty of believers would stand firm in their faith despite increased exposure to diversity. In fact he understood that no matter how passionate he was about reason, critical thinking, and Humanism, plenty of religious people would remain equally passionate about their convictions. Tom still sought common ground. And humbly-- he once turned down an offer to stay for the second hour of a call-in radio talk show he'd been doing, because he had to catch his bus home to make dinner.

In so many ways, Tom was ahead of his time. He bridged the chasm between religious and Humanist communities before most people even knew the latter existed. Now, a third of young Americans identify as nonreligious, and local communities for atheists are starting up like popcorn in the microwave, maybe even by the thousands, often calling themselves cheeky names like "Godless Congregations." Tom's old organization, tiny in his time, now has multiple chaplains, its own home, a national outreach arm, and is actively working with national networks of atheists and Humanists to spread a secular vision far and wide. The boldness with which many of us are undertaking this work bewildered Tom in the last years of his life. He'd grown up as an orphan and never got used to taking up a lot of space in the world. He was a young man in the 1950's when Godlessness was equated with un-Americanness, very purposefully and strategically, by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his minions. And of course he was a gay man, just discovering his sexuality, in a Catholic Church that taught him how to be quiet. Tom never forgot what it felt like to be in a small, surrounded minority.

Years later, Tom watched the movie Brokeback Mountain, and wept. He was amazed by the reception mainstream America could give to two handsome, masculine heroes who just happened to be gay and in love. The movie drove home for him that times really were changing and, he admitted with some bewilderment but equal excitement that this could mean bold new possibilities for Humanist communities, too. Sadly, he was too sick to see the Governor of Massachusetts issue an unprecedented proclamation of "Humanist Community Day" throughout the state last month, in honor of the opening of our new Harvard Humanist Center. And he just missed seeing my jaw drop when I was asked-- the author of a book called Good Without God!-- to give the "closing prayer" at new Boston Mayor Martin Walsh's interfaith inaugural celebration a few days ago. Tom would scarcely have believed either event were possible.

And don't all of us know a relative or family friend or someone whose story parallels Tom's? Someone who was ahead of the world around them in some way, who never thought they'd live to see some of the beautiful things we take for granted? Someone whose very existence made it possible for us to be ourselves? If you're like me, you have (many) days where you take your life for granted. None of us have a strong enough attention span to remain constantly aware of how lucky we are, especially not when there are so, so many victories still to be won, or so many desperate defeats we must still attempt to avoid, depending on one's mood. But what if we could somehow, magically, spend more time in dialogue with the Tom's in our lives, who would be bewildered but inspired by the ways their lives have given us the opportunity to be bold about building a progressive future?

Of course, Humanists don't believe in magical dialogues-- except for the ones produced in the imaginations of brilliant novelists and playwrights, and indeed by all of us in our creative moments. So let's all agree to have at least one creative moment this year, in honor of Tom and all the peace-building heroes who've come before us. Let us use our reason and compassion, reaching out to connect with others so that we can all truly be the change we wish to see.

--Greg M. Epstein is the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and currently serves as the Vice President of the Harvard Chaplains. His first book, Good Without God, was a New York Times Bestseller in 2010, and he is currently writing The Godless Congregation for publisher Simon and Schuster (Spring 2015). For more about Tom Ferrick, including details of an upcoming memorial service, go to harvardhumanist.org.